“Three decades ago, I created something which, with the subsequent help of a huge number of collaborators across the world, has been a powerful tool for humanity. For me, the best bit about the Web has been the spirit of collaboration. While I do not make predictions about the future, I sincerely hope its use, knowledge and potential will remain open and available to us all to continue to innovate, create and initiate the next technological transformation, that we cannot yet imagine. NFTs (non-fungible tokens), be they artworks or a digital artefact like this, are the latest playful creations in this realm, and the most appropriate means of ownership that exists. They are the ideal way to package the origins behind the Web.” With this statement last week, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, managed to do three things.
About 45 years ago , as Ben Tarnoff writes in The Guardian, “A small team of scientists set up a computer terminal at one of its picnic tables and conducted an extraordinary experiment. Over plastic cups of beer, they proved that a strange idea called the internet could work.” Seeded by the US Advanced Research Project Agency and a bunch of allies, the internet was really two things: a wireless network that could route data packets of information to desired destinations, and second, a way to connect multiple wireless networks to the wired Arpanet network.
Computers talking to one another was networking, but networks talking to one another, or internetworking, was what was invented. The common language needed for its communication was created by Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn of ARPA, the ‘inventors’ of internetworking, or what we now call the internet.
A lot of us think that the World Wide Web and the internet are the same, but they aren’t. The Web is the most popular way to access online data through hyperlinks and websites, while the internet, as explained above, is a vast network of computers and servers on which the World Wide Web operates. The internet was a tool for scientists, engineers and the military; the web made it accessible to everyone else.
Berners-Lee worked at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, where he developed the very first webpage; it went live in August 1991, is still active, and is probably the world’s first website (bit.ly/2SnA7zy). It was in 1994, however, that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) founded by Tim Berners-Lee set up protocols, guidelines and standards for the web, and now-familiar terms like TCP (Transmission Control Protocol), IP (Internet Protocol) and HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) were born.
The founding philosophy of the Web was for it to serve as a democratizer and equalizer, to empower the long tail and eliminate monopolies and intermediaries. The Web did solve three big problems for us: an information problem with search and wikis, a communication problem with email and messenger tools, and a distribution problem with file-sharing and e-commerce.
But it could not address the two big problems that it was supposed to solve: one of trust and security, and another of disintermediation—its original philosophy. In fact, the rise of big tech companies has given us intermediaries that are far more powerful than ever before. They literally own most of our online data and information. In that sense, they own us.
The reason for the excitement around blockchain is that it is supposed to solve our unsolved problems—of trust and of inequality—and thereby bring us closer to the original vision of Time Berners-Lee and his co-conspirators. So, it is not surprising what he said in the Financial Times, as he announced that Sotheby’s would auction off the original source code of the Web: The NFT project was his “first foray into crypto”, but he saw similarities in his original vision for the web and the philosophy behind the decentralized network of Ethereum’s blockchain, which underpins most NFTs.
It also resonates with his latest project, Solid, which is designed to give us back control of our personal data. “The blockchain and Solid communities share the motivations of wanting to empower people,” he said, adding that blockchain projects were motivated by resistance to central control. Much like the open, democratic and decentralized origins of the Web.